Written by Sam Imhoff
“Sunbather” by Deafheaven, is an hour-long black metal album that crescendos in blast beats, screams, and walls of distorted guitar and ebbs to soft post-rock interludes. Before “Sunbather,” I’d entirely dismissed artists labeled as “screamo.” But Deafheaven has dispelled that ignorance and confirmed for me that there’s no such thing as a bad genre, just a prejudiced listener.
To my ears, “Sunbather” is an album of incomparable energy, like a deafening scream of angst from our disillusioned, irreligious generation at our unredemptive lives.
There’s no martyrdom against a Reichland, and no delusions about free market justice and honorable duty to corporate employers. We wish to act, but our disenfranchisement leads us to Facebook activism and the cast of a vote that couldn’t even defeat Donald Trump. It’s an existentialism unsated, and so in our youth we rebel and abuse alcohol, drugs, and other vices.
Eventually, the very anxiety we look to escape comes back stronger compounded by uncertainty about the future, so we search out corporate institutions to employ us for a steady paycheck and the approval of our peers. This is the great cyclical acquiescence of our time. Yes, a generalization, but one that bears truth to many, especially to Deafheaven vocalist and lyricist, George McClark.
The title refers to a girl McClark saw sunbathing in the front lawn of her expensive property. Coming from a broken home he followed the self-destructive, alcoholic, and apathetic tendencies of his father. In looking at the affluent girl whom he wishes to be and be with romantically, he contemplates the choices in life that made him depressed, emotionally detached, and an alcoholic, “submitting to the amber crutch,” he screams in the opening track, “Dream House.”
McClark’s lyricism is inspired by contemporary authors like Milan Kundera (a passage from The Unbearable Lightness of Being is read on the track, “Please Remember”) as well as early 20th century writers like Fitzgerald and Hemingway. The iceberg literary style (of which Hemingway was a pioneer) we see adapted in the end of “Dream House” where McClark screams a text conversation he had with a girl he was in love with.
“I’m dying,” she texts. “Is it blissful?” he asks. “It’s like a dream.” Then he says, “I’d like to dream.” The pithy dialogue evokes the ending of Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises where Jake, the narrator speaks with his love, Lady Ashley.
After a kiss she ruminates aloud how great it would be if Jake, the impotent narrator, could have her. He says, “… isn’t it pretty to think so?” Like McClark looking onto the sunbather and fancy high rises of San Francisco, it’s all a dream that’s within sight but out of reach.
The album cover, pink with “Sunbather” printed, is meant to resemble what the sun looks like when you stare into it with your eyes closed.
Back-to-back tracks “Please Remember” and “Vertigo” illuminate the vices that keep a dream behind closed eyelids. The former features a recording of the guitarist buying pharmaceutical opiates from his dealer with the last of his money.
The high-energy 15-minute song following screams of the vertiginous anxiety of being “perched upon a rope crafted in smoke.” It’s a life where balance (sanity) could evaporate easily.
“The Pecan Tree” ends the album on a somber note, as a lamentation of McClark being his father’s son. Alcoholic, a nobody, unable to love.
It’s a tragic conclusion that the dream isn’t only hard to achieve, but it’s illusory. “I have always had an obsession with wealth,” he said in an interview. “Angry for it, yet longing for it.”
Our perfectionist dreams may be delusional, but at least they allow us to reach for the sun and to dream. Sunbather is so beautiful it makes the dream feel worthwhile, even if the wings are made of wax, or the tightrope of smoke.
Deafheaven has been touring nationwide since Sunbather and their most recent release, New Bermuda, has also received critical and commercial success. So for McClark, it’s been nice to dream, if painful.